Saturday, December 4, 2010

An Open Letter To My Students

It has arrived, the end of the semester that is. On facebook, I've been seeing quite a bit of "I'm ready for Christmas Break" or "Why do the professor's save all the work for the end?" or even, "I give up!"

Well, don't give up! And let me challenge you - All of your professors have been right where you are. None of us have any desire for our work to be punitive or overwhelming. It is, however, all a part of the process of learning. The lectures (and hopefully lecture notes!) reading, the discussions, the papers, the casual conversation in hallways, soccer fields and offices, the blogs and the exams all work together to shape the knowledge that is going into your brain and shapes how you live your lives and eventually perform at your vocation.

More than anything, your time at university is about learning. Not simply knowledge accumulation, but about opening yourself up to new worlds and new processes. It's about understanding why life is what it is and how each area of knowledge - humanities, sciences, kinesiology-sports and faith contribute to making you a human being and to help you understand how the world in which you live works. University is more than simply earning a degree so you can prepare for a career, it's about shaping you as a person.

This time in your life comes only once. We are 18-24 years of age only one time around. There really aren't any 'do-overs'. You began soaking in knowledge at an unbelievable rate at about 18 months of age. You learned like a sponge soaking up water until you were about 12; then it began to slow a bit. You began to process more. You began to think about the opposite gender - boyfriends and girlfriends. You began to think about skills, talents, careers - the future. What did you want to do and to be. Well university is the capstone to that process. Everything begins to fall into place for you here - career, graduate school and even family.

Every classroom, every lecture, every assignment provides you an opportunity - an opportunity to learn and to find a way to apply that knowledge to your life, in some small way, that will make you a better person; and eventually a better professional, better spouse and a better parent.

University is your moment, your opportunity. Don't miss it because you are tired or bummed. Talk to your professors about learning. They will honor your request, I promise you I will.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Life's Transitions on my 47th year...

Well, it's official. My family is moving to Montana, where I've been called to pastor and teach. An exciting new era begins for the Smith family. My oldest daughter is a college student and will remain in Brownwood at Howard Payne University, where I have
taught for almost 5 years. Indeed,
the end of the Spring semester will make five full years. They have been good, enriching years at a good school. My coll
eagues are exceptional and my students have been a treasure... for the most part! I feel as though I am leaving my 18, almost 19 year old in good hands.

My youngest daughter will attend a junior high where Italian, German, Spanish and French is taught, as well as choir, band, orchestra and world percussion. She will also have the opportunity to perform with one of three ballet companies, including the Montana Ballet. At the local high school, many of the students are National Merit Scholars and go on to Ivy League schools. She will have the opportunity to learn to ride horses and learn to snow ski.

My wife will be able to pursue whatever vocation she would like. The world is her oyster in Montana. She can teach school, work at a university or for a myriad of other companies in a growing community. I know she is ready to settle in and contribute and I am as excited for her as I am for me!

We will live in a growing community of 40,000, located in the beautiful Rocky mountains. There is a major university, an arts community and an incredible outdoor recreation community. The church is promise itself - exactly the kind of church that suits my gifts and talents. The people in the congregation are hardy, lovely and committed. They are ready to reach out to their community.

I will hit the road running. This Spring, I will spend every other week in Montana, while commuting back to Brownwood to finish teaching my classes. Both my church and HPU have been very generous to allow this opportunity. I don't like loose ends, and though requiring lots of travel, it will allow me to bring closure to my full time teaching at this dear institution. On the weeks that I am in Brownwood, I will be teaching a Monday night New Testament Introduction and on Tuesdays and Thursdays I will be teaching my Christian Doctrines classes... Wednesdays will be office hours and thesis work. I will be staying in the guest house of a good friend in Brownwood, so I will have some private space to relax and collect my thoughts. Saturdays I will be returning to Montana.

As I get older, transitions become harder - and indeed, I find myself becoming more and more resistant to change - but I am committed to following God's call on my life and this is the move I need to make.

Brownwood has definitely been a time of sojourn for me. It has taken its toll in several areas of my life, but I've learned so much about 'me' and ministry that it has been worth it. I must thank my friends, Scott, Carol and Rob, for helping me through this time. These three friends have been privy to all of the difficulties I've encountered during my time here. I must thank my colleagues in the School of Christian Studies, as well as the Provost and President for understanding my burdens and making this transition easier than I would have thought. My friend Sam McCutchen and the Lady Jacket Soccer Team as well as Corey Ash and the HPU Yellow Jacket Band have become special as well. Some of you who read this blog are former students - you need to know that spending time with you was one of the great privileges of my life, especially you Caty.

I will miss all of you, but I am eager to move on now to what God has next for me after this May. It is time. Maybe this will be my last move; I hope so, but I will trust that God will do what He needs to do with me.

Rob, you're my best friend. Visit me this time.

Carol, I've missed you for two years now, but know that you are always my friend. You and your delightful family remains in my prayers.

Scott, I know I will see you soon. Might even convince you to move your practice up north!

Sam, I look forward to hosting you in the near future!

HPU faculty and students: you will always be welcome in my home and I hope to see you when you can make it up north! I hope to mentor some students in ministry from HPU and even possibly minister with some of you.

Well, time to close this entry. Today is my 47th birthday. I've got to pack and reflect some more. My mind is a whirl as I prepare for classes and this move.

I love you all.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Watching your life be sold...

We're having a garage sale today.


It's the American way of preparing to relocate. However, this is not my 'thing' if you will; it's my wife's thing. Now, don't get me wrong, I help. I collect stuff, set up and assist in whatever needs to be done; but I don't 'haggle' or 'sell'... It's just too difficult. I feel as though I am selling my life.

Bit by bit, piece by piece, clothing, furniture, kitchen ware, tools, knick-knacks and other memorabilia that have marked portions of your life are sold to others for next to nothing. We sold a rocking chair for $7, a cabinet for $20 and who-knows-what-else at 4 for a $1 or less... In the heat of the sale, it is strange to see strangers pawing over your life, grabbing some things with lustful possessiveness and simply dismissing other things as if it was junk. Maybe it was, but it meant something to me once.

I walk out to give Melissa a break an hour into the sale and I saw a table cloth, a blue patterned table cloth that I had owned before we were married. I don't remember where I got it; I think from my father in Oklahoma. I couldn't part with it though. So I brought it back inside the house. It was too large a part of my history to let go. Maybe my daughters will want it some day; or maybe they will bury it with me, I don't know. It marked a part of my life though that is worth remembering.

I let go of a lot of other things though - a brief case, some tools, clothes, posters, furniture - and with those things, I saw the memories of each go as well. I don't think I will forget immediately, but over time, without those items, the memories will fade. Obviously, if the memories were that important, I would still have those things.

But alas, life moves onward - new memories and new 'memorabilia' to accompany them. There will be new furniture, new kitchen bowls and more clothes.

It's tough though watching your life be sold to whomever will pay the price your asking; but its actually a very good thing to do.

Aren't you glad that your life is more than the material things you wear and use? Aren't you glad that those things don't own you? Fetishism is what occurs when we imbue common objects with a 'magical' power. When we don't let go of those things because they have a hold on us, we can become crippled by the power we give them... But God takes care of us and stuff is just, well, stuff.

I guess garage sales aren't so tough after all.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Ladies That Changed Me.

It is every professor's privilege to help his or her students not only amass knowledge in a specific discipline, but also help them to grow into better human beings. Part of the commission - the 'call' if you will - to teach is that you not only share a knowledge base, but that you enable those students to wisely apply the knowledge that has been bequeathed to him or her. I realize that this might be an idea unique to the Christian educational perspective, but I hope not. Being a teacher is a weighty call.

This past fall however, I was involved with a group of young women that changed me. They are the Lady Jacket Soccer Team - specifically four young ladies, their coach, a university photographer and a student groupie. All six of the young women (four players, a university photographer and the soccer 'groupie') had been or are in my Old Testament Introduction class. The coach is a valued friend of mine. Together, they did something that I try to do in all my classes - they showed me that I was valuable.

It is one of my deepest concerns that all of my students not only take away information from my classes and be able to wisely apply that information in their lives, but they walk away from my classes experiencing "value" - when they leave they know that each of them is valued as a person. Sometimes I am successful at that, sometimes I am not so successful - nevertheless it is something for which I aim. This fall, as I have had a "full plate" on my table, so to speak, I have wondered as to whether I have fallen short or not in my aim. Hopefully, I have succeeded, but I have had my doubts. Indeed, this fall has been a very trying time for me personally. Many prayerful decisions have been made and changes are in the works. But in the midst of all of these issues - these seven plus people - six young women, a coach and a soccer team - have shown me that I have value. They have shown me that the time I have spent in the classroom and as a participant in greater university life has made a difference. I needed to know that as much as they needed to know that they are valued too.

So my hat is off to the 2010 Lady Jacket Soccer Team, and especially, Sam, Kerrie, Bri, Mallory, Shannon, Megan and Kayla. Thank you for reaching out to me (though you didn't even know it!) when I was at a crossroads. It has made a difference. Thank you for your character - it is such a rarity in our time and culture. Thank you for your studious pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. But most of all thank you for the care and time you have shared with me. I am a better person because of who you are.

For those of you who are wondering - I am the guy right in the middle of the 'swarm' on the back row. STING 'EM Ladies!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Viva (vie • vuh)

The word, "viva" literally means, "to live." I think it is an interesting term, especially in how it is being used in my current context, "Upgrade Viva". An upgrade viva in the English context means "an interview where two outside examiners (PhDs in your field of enquiry) question you about your thesis and all of its attendant details. The enquiry last for as long as it takes for the examiners to ascertain your knowledge base and your potential for further scholarship. If you "pass" the examination, you are allowed to finish your thesis and submit it as a doctoral thesis, for which you can earn the doctor of philosophy degree. If the examiners find you deficient, then you are relegated to completing the M. Litt degree or Master of Letters - to be quite honest, it is a second class degree in this instance. It says your research is not good enough, complete enough or does not merit continuation towards the doctor of philosophy degree. So now the term "viva" is understood a bit better: it is the academic colloquy that determines the life or death of a scholar.

Well, my upgrade viva is tomorrow with two scholars I respect greatly. They have been reading my material for the past month and will make a decision tomorrow on its merit. If I were younger, I might be disturbed or even nervous. I find myself in a different place altogether. I am at peace; serene. (Well, a bit chilled at the moment - it's cold and wet here!!) Nevertheless, my demeanor is unaffected. I know my subject. I do.

My world is falling into place. God truly puts you in the right place at the right time. He gives you the confidence you need when you need it. He makes your paths straight. If you seek God's world, God's vision, He gives you glimpses of it and of His glory. Then he opens it up bit, by bit as we are faithful.

I thank you O Father for this beautiful day.
Help me to live it moment by moment
Seeing your glory
and sharing your love
in all that I do.
Let Jesus live in me
and your Spirit speak through my life…

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

What happens when you hurt your friends.

I know it has been a while since my last post, but I want to share briefly some thoughts with you all the way from England. It's one of those times where I just need to share.

I have a friend who really makes me think.

We should all friends like that. Maybe my blog makes you think, and if so, that's good. Well, this friend - the one who really makes me think - is a person I have hurt very deeply. I'm still trying to wrap my head around all the stupid things I did to hurt this person - the older you get the more complicated it gets! - but I really know just one thing: I hurt someone I care about deeply. So much so that they really don't want to have anything to do with me. Now I have never really been in that position. The position where someone was so upset with you that they don't want to have anything to do with you, except maybe an ex-girlfriend, but this is not an ex-girlfriend.

So I've apologized, I've tried to reconcile and its just not happening. I think any sane person would just let it go; but I'm having a hard time with that because this person is someone I care about. You could even say love. I love my friends: Scott, Dave, Mel, Fran, Chris, Jo, Carol, Ken, Chuck... I hope I love them like Christ loves me; you know, the whole, "No man has greater love than this, than he lay his life down for his friends" kind of love. That's who I am. At least, that's who I hope I am and who I want to be...

Nevertheless, I hurt them and I know I hurt them. I had no desire to hurt them, but I did. I also know that they don't want to hurt and the best way not to hurt is to simply avoid me. I can't help that, can I? Its just the way it is. So I should move on. I know. But why is this pain still so deep, if I know that I've done all I can do?

My guess is that to "hurt" a friend is to break a trust, to betray the love that I say I have for my friends. You know, that selfless love Jesus proclaims. My love had become self-ish, not selfless. I needed my friend to be there for me and I wasn't there for them, listening like I should have. And so I said and did thoughtless things and now I am paying the price. But again, why the deep pain?

I can only guess. To have cared so deeply for someone and then to have that relationship destroyed is tantamount to having a piece of yourself destroyed too. I have lost something of me in them and I can never get it back. I can only learn from it...So that love, that friendship and now that pain is a part of me. Will it be a burden I always bear? I don't know. Maybe after a while the pain will dull, but it will never be forgotten. Love leaves a scar. Just ask Jesus.

So my friends, as someone on the journey let me say this: love your friends; listen to them, listen to their hearts; give them the space they need and forgive them generously when they err. Do all you can to be the love Jesus wants you to be for them.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Vertiginous Change

The past 3 months of my life have been a veritable roller coaster. I know that all of us have had segments of our lives that could be defined in that manner. Events, decisions and unplanned happenings come at us so quickly and with such force that they can overwhelm us. So 'rollercoaster' like is how I describe these past few months: towering peaks followed by massive valleys, more peaks with twists and turns in between and all navigated at lightning like speed. When you finally get off the coaster, you suffer from a form of vertigo that leaves you out of balance and without a firm sense of direction. Well, that's where I am - a little dizzy and ready to sit down for a moment (although this Saturday I leave for a week in England!).

I realize that life is never easy, but wouldn't you like it to be a little less vertiginous some times? I know I would. I would like to deal with one issue at a time, rather than seven issues, with each issue complicating the over all situation!

Its at times like these, when your faith in God centers you. It is our unwavering faith in Christ that anchors us during the storms of life. Christ gives us center and focus. He gives us peace of mind and energy for the journey. He sustains us. I am reminded of the old revivalist hymn Solid Rock: "My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly trust in Jesus’ Name."

Well, enough for now. The cares of the day call. Tomorrow I will tell you about "my soccer girls!"

Sunday, October 10, 2010

7 hours, 25 bands and 3,750 students later

I survived.

I survived judging the USSBA Central Texas Regional marching band competition in Kyle, Texas. There were 25 bands made up of approximately 3,750 high school students. I commented on every performance from 1:45pm to 9:30pm. That is 200 minutes (3 hours and 20 minutes) of taped commentary. Additionally, I made written comments and assigned scores. I was in the press box of Shelton stadium for over 9 hours. 9 hours. NINE HOURS. Most of it in an 8' x 8' room with two windows opening up to the field.

And I loved every minute of it.

Listening and watching those 25 bands - each of those over 3,000 students focused intently on the task at hand. They performed as experts. Each student had an intimate awareness of his or her musical and visual responsibilities. They were finely tuned (no-pun intended) musical marching machines. They had worked hard for over 2 and 1/2 months for those 8 minutes of performance and all of them - ALL OF THEM - left nothing behind. They gave everything they had and then some. They left the field sweating, gasping for breath - spent. The crowd roared. They performed for the sake of performance. They performed for the love of music. They performed for love of their schools, their directors and their peers. They performed for the crowds. They performed for me, the music ensemble judge and six of my colleagues. I was honored by each and every performance to be a part of that moment of musical and visual pageantry.

Not many things in this life enable us to 'transcend' our mundane existence, but music is one of those things. In music we find joy, hope, sadness and despair. We are moved personally by music. In music, we find the utmost range of emotion and purpose.

I understand why some would believe that in music they can experience a moment of heaven - primarily because I believe that music is the language of heaven. For every note, every rest, every rhythm, every melodic phrase and rhythmic impulse speaks to us in a way that speech cannot. Every note of music witnesses to a transcendent story, a universal purpose for our lives. Music can reflect the pain of living, but it also communicates the hope of resurrection.

You should have seen the faces on those kids - from the box five (superior) to the box two (fair) band - each student had a smile as they stepped on and off the field. For in performing - by playing the music - each student won. For a moment, each one spoke the language of heaven, and were changed forever by it.

I am so glad to have been a part.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Le Grande Aventure!

I can read several languages fluently, but I must admit, French is not my thing...but under the circumstances and my flair for the dramatic, it seemed appropriate! Anyway, this weekend is "the grand adventure." Melissa, Hannah and I are taking a weekend off - no football game on Friday night! - to envision a new future for the family.

Since Melissa and I married 23 years ago, life has been an amazing adventure. It's had ups and downs, but for the most part, its been good. We have gone where the Lord opened doors and to the best of our ability have been faithful to His call. So we go. My prayer has always been that my daughters would share in this adventure -that they would see the influence of God in their lives and in their futures through all of this, and ultimately would learn to trust Him; and always know that no matter where we were or what we did, love would always bind our family together. God's love.

Sometimes I wonder if this adventure is equated with instability, but I don't think so. If that was the case, the apostles were the most unstable of people. Indeed, you could say that about any biblical personality. To follow God in this world is perceived as "foolishness" and thus the question of stability will always be there. But we know that is not the case. Melissa and I are from the southwest, Catherine was born in Virginia and Hannah was born in Washington state - there is only one direction for us to go then in these 48 states - north. And so we go.

For those of you who read this blog, this sounds "cryptic" - and it does, admittedly - but know my intention here is to talk about 'adventure'. Merriam-Webster defines adventure in the following manner:

1. an undertaking usually involving danger or risks.

2. an exciting or remarkable experience.

Of these definitions, I would like to think that the second, or latter is my reference point. I see adventure as an exciting or remarkable experience. I want my children to have those experiences and to be better for it. They will always have a stable home, though it may not be in the same house. Nevertheless, they will have experienced the new, the different and the unknown and thus will never have to be afraid.

I am not afraid to try new things, to attempt those things that others say is improbable or impossible. I'm not afraid, although I do not always succeed. But that is the adventure. To be faithful and to let success or failure reside in the hands of God. I am not afraid to let God be in control. In my tradition, we sing the hymn tune: "Wherever He Leads I'll Go" - but quite often we don't do we? We sense God's call, but we refuse to follow because of fear: fear of the unknown, a fear for safety or simply the ultimate conviction that we need to stay 'in control'... but what does that do to us over time?

All I can tell you is that I will go until I am called home.

I wish I could take all of you with me! (arf)

Let the adventure begin!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Held together by love...

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.

He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.

He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.

For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him,

and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him,

I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.

Colossians 1: 15-20 NASB95

I sent an instant message to my daughter late last night, simply saying, "I love you Boo." She responded, quickly, "I love you too, daddy." A few hours earlier, I gave my youngest daughter a hug and said, "I love you too," when she said, "Love you daddy, night"... I tell my wife that I love her every night. I tell my own dad and mom that I love them when I say goodbye on the phone. I even tell my close friends I love them when the opportunity is there and the context demands it. Love is a part of my life, naïvely so at times, but yet a very important part of my life.

Indeed, I've come to realize that "love" holds my family together. Blood might be thicker than water, but love - the selfless concern for the other - trumps even blood. I would die for those whom I love. A 'heady' statement, I know, but that's the "end" of love. In other words, when it comes right down to it, to love someone is a surrender of self. It's a willingness to sacrifice self for the sake of the other. Paul says this in so many words in Galatians 2:20. We sacrifice either portions of our lives or even forfeit our lives for love of the other. Parents do this all the time for their children. They forfeit elements of their own lives so that their children might have life. Spouses do this for each other and so do friends.

I quoted the passage from Colossians above, because it tells us that our very world, the cosmic creation if you will, is held together by love. 1 John 4 tells us that God is love and that you and I were created for love. This Colossians passage tells us that our whole existence is bound up in love - for indeed, Jesus is the essence of God's love. John 3:16 - for God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son... God's love is that rich and that deep. God is love. His love, Jesus, not only ransomed the universe from captivity to sin and death, but even holds that same universe together! I am captive to this love. More and more each day I see the crucial need for this love.

So I will never withhold love from my family. It is the bond that holds us together. I will not withhold love from my church or my friends. It is how they know care and hope. I will love those who seem unloveable, why? Because they are precisely the ones that God loves, for the world in which they live is hopeless and seemingly devoid of love. But it is not. We need to be love. We need to be love for and to each other. That's God's plan to change the world and that is my plan to strengthen my family. love.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The USSBA: Why I am a marching band adjudicator.

I am an adjudicator with the US Scholastic Band Association.

Like most adults, I have far too much on my plate to add anything else. I am a husband and a parent of one college student and one elementary age student - who by the way, are also involved in far too many things! I am a university professor, a scholar - always working on journal articles or books - a music arranger for the last 30 years and a part-time minister - which means I work on Sundays! So my again I say, my plate is full. But add to those distinctions, music adjudicator for the US Scholastic Band Association.

I was a full-time band/drum corps director for the first decade after I got out of college. I taught, I arranged and composed, and I adjudicated. I ended my full-time vocational pursuit of music in 1995 after having taught at the U.S. Naval Academy for several years. Not bad for a 32 year old. But that doesn't mean that I stopped. I have continued to arrange for bands, choirs and orchestras (700 arrangements and counting!); act as a clinician and adjudicate non-stop since then. My vocation as a theology and ethics professor is combined with my passion for music at Howard Payne University where I currently teach. Why do I continue this torrid pace? Because I love music and I find incredible satisfaction helping young men and women achieve.

In the years since I left full-time music education, I have found that my passion has not waned for the activity that gave me so much - marching band and drum corps - but increased exponentially. So I have found ways to continue helping young men and women achieve their goals and dreams through music and the arts. Indeed, my own professional interest in theological and philosophical aesthetics has only enhanced this pursuit.

But why USSBA? I would suggest clicking on the link above to find out more about the organization. But in a nutshell, let me say that my passion agrees with their passion. They want to provide an educational venue for bands to compete in, with the emphasis on education. They want every band to walk away from their events, not dejected over placement, but rather proud of their achievement and having gained further insight into the art and skill of marching-music pageantry. Now I am all about that!

As I look at other competitive circuits or other competitions, I see adjudication that focuses on well-known personalities, taped comments and trophies. (You get these things at USSBA shows too!) This is not bad, necessarily, but I also know that for some of these personalities, it's not about the kids or even the education process; its about them. It's about the $500 fee and the exposure. I don't want to over generalize though. That's what many of those contests want. You pay the big bucks so that fill-in-the-blank-named personality will talk to you about your band. But you get no face time with that judge. Just comments. I am sure much of those comments are good, but I also know that many of those comments could have been made by anyone - "You need to tune your flutes here," or "The percussion is phasing from the batterie in the back to the front ensemble."

But that's not the ethos of the USSBA and certainly not mine. For the USSBA its about education. The adjudicators are not only very experienced designers and creators, they are educators. They have weekly conferences during the fall in order to address deficiencies and to improve as adjudicators. The USSBA staff does everything in their power to make sure that every adjudicator is qualified and continuously educated. If you don't perform up to expectations on your evaluations, you are not asked to judge again. This is a win-win situation for bands. There are other high profile 'competitive' circuits today in North America, but none of them have educational achievement aims of USSBA. As a band director, you get quality adjudication tapes, a quality experience for your students and face time with the judges in order to make sure you understand what was said and how you can get better.

I am an educator. This gift is delivered as a professor, an artistic creator and as an adjudicator. If it were not for USSBA, adjudication would not be worth it to me. It's about the opportunity to educate and edify, rank and rate. It's about the opportunity to imbue students with a life long passion for making music and to invest in the pageantry of the marching arts. Thanks Hop, for the opportunity.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Rich Love of God

As I was saying - before I accidentally posted just my title! - I am a man obsessed with the rich, overwhelming, incomparable love of God. Although that doesn't seem very 'manly' in our 21st century Western culture, I'm finding that God's love must be the essence of every man, woman and child.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, in no uncertain terms: "For God so loved the world...."

Paul, in his letters to the Ephesians stated: "so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.

And of course, the great 1 Corinthians 13:13, which ends: "But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love."

All of this ends with John's great claim in 1 John 4:16, "We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. "

Our world has trivialized, marginalized, degraded and sensationalized "love" to the point that now it is categorized as just a feeling or worse, something to feared and avoided. People are afraid of love. Or worse, love is something you reserve for one person. Even Christians believe this lie. Interestingly, if I recall correctly, Jesus stated plainly: "This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you." (John 15:12f) Amazing.

Yet there are Christians who walk around having no idea what God is asking of them. They confuse love and lust; they confuse marital commitment with being 'in love' or not being 'in love'. We just don't get it.

The Beatles were right when they sang, "All you need is love." But what does that mean for us? The infighting in churches is at an all time high. We argue over the fine points of theology, but ultimately fail the love test above. We will remove from fellowship a neighbor who questions penal substitutionary atonement, yet we tolerate those among us who actually foster discord and even, dare I say it, anger... These people hold the church hostage over whether or not it is proper to stop holding men's breakfasts and women's luncheons in favor of a block party outreach.

Lust and physical attraction will always be a part of our human life. We are biological creatures; but don't confuse this with the unquenchably rich agape of God. Indeed, it is the Spirit within us that enables us to crucify the physical passions in service to agape. This is why Paul can say "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)

How can we claim to be biblical Christians, yet have lost sight of this truth? The reality is the enemy has corrupted God's concept of love in our world and reduced it to the confusing mish-mash of definitions and actions we have today. Let me challenge you to open the book again on "agape." In prayer and in study, find a way through this jungle. Do not let your lusts be confused with love. The ultimate definition of love is Jesus on the cross. Love is found in the one who lays his or her life down for the sake of the other.

Live love.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Opening and Shutting Doors...

I don't know if you have children, but one of the greatest challenges of parenting is instilling in your children the habit of turning off lights and shutting doors when they leave a room or enter a house. I have come to the conclusion that many people don't actually learn this habit until they have to pay the electric bill, but nevertheless, we try. We can only hope that someday our kids will understand the value and habit of following through, and shutting a door or turning off a light when one is not in a room!

But opening and shutting doors is also a metaphor for something else. As a person of faith, a believer in the living God, I believe that God directs our footsteps in life and one of the means by which He directs us is by "opening and shutting doors." Another way we talk about this, at least in secular terms, is by talking about taking advantage of "windows of opportunity."

In the last year, I have had a sense that doors and windows were shutting in my life. The opportunities to pursue my call and vocation were becoming limited. The signs were all there as I understood them. I did not understand why these things were happening when I was so convicted that this was what I needed to be doing. So I entered a season of prayer, seeking more specifically what God wanted from me, or in what way could I better serve Him.

He has answered that prayer by opening windows and doors. So like a person who opens their front door after a tornado has passed through, I slowly looked through the door that was opening before me and began to look around. The view is both exhilarating and challenging to look beyond the door. Yet, I stepped back in to the house and began to pray some more. I began to ask the hard questions of my wife and friends.

And I continue to pray. I have invested so much in this part of my life, and at my age - 47 this November! - I wonder if this isn't a good time. But then I realize that doubt is "anti-faith" and if there is anything I need to exercise right now, it's faith. I've got to trust God that this is the right thing, the right opportunity at this stage of my short life.

So I continue to pray, but I also begin to step beyond the open door more and more. Each time I do, I become more and more convicted that the door is open for a reason, God's reason, and my only response can be faithful obedience.

Helen Keller once said, "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure."

Jesus said, "Take up your cross and follow me." He also said, Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Seek God. Look for the open windows and doors. Then walk through them in faith.

Monday, September 13, 2010

So I mowed the lawn...

Do you live with regret? Regret is a feeling of sadness or disappointment over something that has happened or been done; or something that has not happened or not been done. Well, tonight I am experiencing regret. Maybe what I have to say will help some of you...

I ran into a friend today and it surprised me. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised; we live in a small town! But it did. I had not seen or talked this person in a while and the last time I really spoke with them it was a difficult discussion, even a painful one. But life goes on.

And when I say life goes on it really goes on - my friend is a busy person and I am a busy person. I can only speak for myself when I say that a lot of water has passed under the bridge in the 7 months since we last spoke - my daughter graduated from high school, I've made several trips out of state for business and pleasure, I've been on a mission trip, I've been working on articles, I've been working on a thesis, I'm leading a church through transition, I'm counseling folks, I'm preaching regularly, I'm teaching new students, I'm preparing to adjudicate during the new marching band season, I'm pondering lots of changes, yada, yada, yada... you get the picture. And in the flow of life, the memory of our last conversation has slowly faded into the background.

Until this evening that is...

And so I have this chance meeting, better - "passing" - with this friend. I am walking up some stairs and they are walking down. We exchange a few quick words and go on our way. My friend was polite and I was so stunned all I could do was mumble; and if you know me, you know I am never at a loss for words - hence I am a blogger!

But that was just enough to trigger regret. I regret not stopping to talk; I regret not finding out how things were going for them; I regret not saying a million things any friend should have said. Just seeing this person brought a flood of memories. I couldn't even focus on the reception I attended because I was overwhelmed with regret. But I tried. I put on my best face and made conversation with some great people until I couldn't any more and I drove home. Thinking about what I wish I would have said to my friend.

I became so unable to focus that I mowed the lawn. It's the man thing to do. When things get tough, mow the lawn, sweat, get the weed eater out. Work on the car. Put on your running shoes and run until you cramp up. There is nothing like good hard physical exertion to make you stop thinking about what you should have done or wish you would have done. Yeah, right. I think deep inside I'm hoping that just blogging about this experience will be cathartic for me, but only time will tell.

So I'm telling you this, my readers. Don't live with regret. Love your friends. Let them know you care. Don't let moments slip by where you wish you would have said something. I did today, and I regret it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Rejecting the Culture of 'Nice'...

While Jesus was saying these things, one of the women in the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breasts at which You nursed.” But He said, “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” [Luke 11:27-28]

Jesus has just finished casting out a demon and explaining to the amazed crowd the principle behind spiritual possession [more or less!], when a woman in the crowd pronounces the above blessing on Jesus. Taken by itself, it is a fairly kind, even nice thing to say to him after he offered such a profound display of spiritual power and insight. Indeed, it is a recognition of his blessed mother and even of his divine status. Jesus does not reject the woman or her blessing, but he "proceeds to something more significant" according to New Testament scholar Leon Morris. The important thing, according to Jesus, is not simply the recognition of Jesus as blessed or divine; but rather hearing and keeping the Word of God.

Of course, Christians argue passionately about the nature of salvation all the time, especially in denominational circles and primarily because scripture seems to offer a variety of different positions on the subject. We want salvation to be an act of God without consequence; nevertheless, there must be a consequence: a changed life that acts in obedience to God rather than self - To name a few examples:

John 3:16 - “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life."

It would seem that "belief" - understood simply as cognitive recognition of Jesus' divine claim would be saved.

But look at John 3:21 - “But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”

It seems as though John qualifies this belief in the crucified Christ as manifest in 'deeds' or 'practices' of truth.

Or what about Matthew 25:34-40?

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. ‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’

“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? ‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’

“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’

Here it would seem that Matthew's Jesus tells us we can merit eternal life through a works based righteousness...

Or how about Romans 10:9-13? A passage that most Baptists would say is the cornerstone passage in regards to the process of salvation - the end of the "Romans Road" as it were.

that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, “WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.”

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.”

In this passage Paul would seem to affirm that salvation results from cognitive recognition (belief) and confession (a verbalized, vocalized public statement)

Let's end with James 2:14-17...

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.

Ultimately, our salvation is a gift from God, manifested "by grace, through faith/belief", resulting in a changed life, which is obedient to God. The two are inseparable. One who claims to be a Christian yet does not exhibit a life reflective of Christ then is not a Christian at all. So the scriptures would suggest...

So what gives?

Generally speaking, Christianity in America and specifically, Christianity in the Bible Belt, has become mired in the secular idea of toleration, or more specifically, "nice." If we say the 'right' things and attend gatherins at the 'right' times and don't say anything other than "nice" things to others, then we are evidencing a 'saved' life. Interestingly, as I read Luke 11:27-28, I am struck by Jesus response. The woman was amazed, even worshipful, but was just trying to be "nice." Please don't misunderstand me. I am all for being "nice" - which, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary means, "pleasing, agreeable, appropriate, fitting, virtuous or respectable." But in regards to theological usage, "nice" is misleading and this would seem to be Jesus point. The more important issue for Jesus, isn't simply acknowledging God, but doing what God says. It is not enough to be nice. Mean people can be 'nice'. Lost people can be nice. Nice doesn't necessarily reflect God's saving grace. Hearing and keeping (read: understanding and living/doing) the Word of God does.

Nevertheless, many American Christians will do anything not to offend another person, ever. Because if that happens, his or her own self worth will be affected. The other person, will not "like" me, or my value in the community will drop or in the future this person will not help me with my projects. Thus, we have a paradigm problem.

As believers in Jesus Christ, Jesus says our self-worth is defined not simply by believing in him, but acting according to God's Word and will. Nevertheless, as American Christians, we still want to be defined by our own actions and motives; and thus garner the praise and appreciation of others. The problem with this tactic is that it relegates God to a secondary status in our lives. Our life in Christ then becomes stunted. It's like trying to be a marathon runner, while still smoking, drinking and staying out late at night. You'll never make it, you will never be competitive as a runner. You can't have it both ways. Either Christ is Lord or He is not.

Life is short. Be kind, gentle, loving, merciful, gracious, respectable and manifest all of the other fruits of the Spirit. But be real. Be honest with God, yourself and an accountability partner about your own issues, problems, 'sins' and inadequacies. Then, be dedicated to being a living testimony to Jesus, God's living Word. Be loving, yet honest and real with others. Don't sacrifice faithfulness to the gospel on the altar of cultural toleration or being "nice." Live your faith - Love others, be genuine; but don't gratify your fleshly desires. Encourage those who need encouragement; exhort those who need exhortation - but do not "be nice" to someone, only to criticize them later... Jesus called that hypocrisy and the road of hypocrisy is paved with "nice".

If want to live the life that God has given to us in Jesus, we can't simply claim the name, we must walk as He walked and do as He did.